After more than a decade of organic farming, Pat and Larry Pollock have become accustomed to the jokes from their conventional colleagues.
“If we go to the coffee shop, and the tables are full of conventional farmers, they all pooh-pooh organic – ‘It’ll never work, it’ll never work,’” says Pat, who farms with her husband just north of Brandon, Man.
“However, if there are just one or two, they are absolutely full of questions on how we do it. It’s just they can’t be seen to be interested or wanting to learn from those crazy organic farmers.”
There is a lot they can learn. The Pollocks’ business model is very specialized – they make a good living on just 300 acres, growing alfalfa seed and spelt, an ancient grain. They process the latter and have trouble keeping up with demand.
But it’s their approach on the agronomic side that holds lessons for other farmers, both conventional and organic ones.
One of the reasons farmers in their area are curious about Pollock Farms is that the operation defies the widely held belief that giving up herbicides inevitably leads to weed-infested fields.
“We have been asked if we are still organic,” says Pat. “People driving past our fields have noticed how they look as clean or cleaner than a lot of the fields that are sprayed to death.”
That’s something that gets noticed by farmers who are writing ever-larger cheques for herbicide costs. Indeed, it was the cost of inputs that first got Larry, 64, thinking about organic. He and Pat married two decades ago, and Pat brought three children in their teens and tweens to the marriage.
“His life really changed,” Pat says with a laugh. “Back then, 70 to 75 per cent of the farm’s income was going for inputs – that doesn’t leave a lot of spare cash for raising a family.”
Larry doubled his acreage – to a still-modest 600 acres – around the same time but, of course, his input bill doubled, too. Some of his new land had been continuously cropped and the soil was exhausted, so he put it into alfalfa. When it was time to take the alfalfa out, an organic farmer mentioned to the couple how it wouldn’t take long to have that land certified organic and “the rest is history,” says Pat.
Naturally, weed control became a top priority, and changed the way the farm was managed.
“The secret is an awful lot of active management behind the scenes,” she says. “We do a lot of planning so we employ things such as different seeding times. We’re also proactive and get cold, hard steel out there at the right time so small messes don’t become big messes.”
There are two key parts to their ‘active management.’ The first is to be relentless when it comes to scouting.
“As a long-time farmer, Larry likes to go out after supper and check on his crops. It’s part of his routine, and something he enjoys doing.”
The second part is to have a long-term vision and stick with it.
Last year, conditions were perfect for wild oats, and a spelt field was heavily infested. The grassy weed is a huge problem on Prairie farms (costing farmers as much as $500 million annually in reduced yields, grade losses, and dockage), but had never been an issue since the Pollocks went organic. And they wanted to keep it that way.
“So we bit the bullet and had the neighbour come in and cut that field for greenfeed,” says Pat. “Sometimes you have to lose a crop to save years and years of pain.”
Deciding to write off a field of their bread-and-butter crop wasn’t easy, but it was necessary, she says.
“With organic, you have to look at the big picture and think long range,” she says. “And you have to remain flexible. You need a plan, a back-up plan, and maybe even a back-up to the back-up.”
Neither of these practices are specific to organic farms. Many experts are urging farmers to do more intensive scouting so they can either do targeted spraying or not spray at all when insect numbers or disease levels don’t warrant it. Crafting a multi-year, and more diverse crop rotation plan (with back-up alternatives) would be a more complex affair. But there’s a cost (both in yields and weed/pest pressure) that comes with over-reliance on two or three crops. Practices that work when grain and oilseeds prices are high might not be affordable when they fall.
The Pollocks were also faced with a bewildering range of options and choices when they converted to organic. Two practices proved invaluable.
First, the couple became “faithful” attendees of workshops, conferences, and field tours. Some were good, others less so, but the key was their ability to take in information, Pat says.
“You really have to listen, and listening takes practice because you have to be able to link new information to your past experiences,” she says. “That takes active concentration.”
They also learned the value of informal learning. One of the best events they attend is a potluck supper held once or twice a year by a group of organic farmers in their region. The last was held this past February and attracted a wide variety of producers from across western Manitoba and into Saskatchewan despite a “horrible” snowstorm.
“We had over 60 people in the church basement and after supper, we broke into little groups – the cattle people, the grain people, and the vegetable people,” says Pat. “Some mixed and matched, chatting about specific topics like who has what seed for sale.”
You not only pick up a lot of information, but make invaluable connections, she says.
“You’re also putting names and faces together, and it’s much easier to pick up the phone months later and call that person if you have a question or want to bounce something off them.”